September 21, 2009

Art from Ancient Afghanistan

Ceremonial Plaque depicting Cybele, early 3rd century BCE, 10 inches

When I was in the city, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the show on the art of ancient Afghanistan, and the new installation of the American wing (post soon to follow). Maps of trade routes through Afghanistan showed how interconnected the ancient world was. Afghan Lapis lazuli, the semi-precious stone used for carving and for the most beautiful and expensive blue pigment, was traded throughout the middle east and then Europe for centuries. The works in the show seemed to me to be either Hellenic in style, or Indian; they didn't have a clear Afghan character. The piece above is described as an amalgam of eastern and Greek influences: the eastern in the crescent, the shape of the pyramid and chariot, the west in the bust of Helios and the naturalism of draperies and lions. It is a very lovely, delicately sculpted work.

Plaque with Women under Gateways, 1st 2nd century A.D., 5 x 10 inches

The small ivory plaque above, in the voluptuousness of the figures and stylization of form, both in the figures and the surroundings, is clearly influenced by Indian sculpture.

Flask in the shape of a Fish, 1st 2nd century A.D., 3 x 4 x 8 inches

This bottle, a perfume container, is believed to come from Roman Alexandria. It's a beautifully made, inventive and fanciful piece, one of my favorite things in the exhibition. What was most important to me about this show, however, was where a large group of objects, including the two pieces just above, were unearthed: at Bagram, which had been a major trading center during the 1st and 2nd centuries. To see the name Bagram associated with objects of beauty and not with a shameful military prison is to think of Afghanistan in a new, enlarged way. It is to see it as a place that was the site of centuries of trade, and the home of generations of men and women who treasured artful objects. Afghanistan is now for me not only a place of war, but a peaceful crossroads of trade and aesthetic pleasure.

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